FIRST-TIME VISITORS might be forgiven for asking, This is Minnesota? Indeed, the topography seems a little misplaced—there are no lakes in all of Fillmore County. (The last round of glaciers, geologists explain, missed the state's southeast corner.) Instead you'll find deep river gorges, limestone bluffs crowned with hardwoods, tumbling trout streams, caves, and sinkholes. Despite the woodsy aesthetics, Amish farmers and wild turkeys pretty much had the place to themselves until 1985. That year, the old railroad bed was paved, creating the 60-mile Root River State Trail, most of which meanders east from the town of Fountain along its namesake stream, through Lanesboro, and across 47 bridges, until it winds down in the town of Houston. Ever since, cyclists, paddlers, tubers, and (increasingly) nordic skiers have descended. Lanesboro's picture-book setting, a collection of revived gingerbread Victorian houses, B&Bs, and shops fronting a 320-foot bluff, is just frosting on the cake.
OUTDOORS: The mostly flat trail and the mostly flat river are what lure weekenders from the Twin Cities, 100 miles to the north; come winter, the route is groomed for skiers. The ambitious can paddle 90 miles of the Root River to the Mississippi, keeping an eye out for beavers, foxes, egrets, and river otters. And while proclaiming the best fishing spot is a sure way to start an argument in Minnesota, the South Branch of the Root and its feeder streams are hard to beat for native trout.
REAL ESTATE: The truly diligent can find a three-bedroom starter home for less than $100,000, a quality ranch house for $120,000, and an exquisite two-story Victorian B&B-in-waiting for $400,000.
HANGOUTS: You can hardly go wrong with the Habberstad House, a century-old Queen Anne that's painted in umpteen shades of green and red (doubles, $110 and up; 507-467-3560, www.bbonline.com/mn/habberstad). No visit is complete without a meal at the Chat 'n Chew, a greasy-spoon mainstay where old-timers gather to guzzle coffee and, well, chew the fat.